Mountain biking, like many modern sports, is built on a foundation of continuous technology improvements and electric mountain bikes are just another development in that progression. It’s unfair to discriminate against trail users based on the equipment they choose to utilize and it’s hypocritical for mountain bikers–long blocked from trail access by ultra low-tech hikers–to discriminate against riders who choose to utilize the latest technology out on the trail.

Perhaps the easiest argument to make against electric mountain bikes is that they’re motorized and there is a long precedent for distinguishing between motorized and non-motorized trail use. But the most often-cited reasons for that distinction–noise and trail damage–don’t apply to electric mountain bikes. The latest e-MTB models are silent and don’t feature a throttle, making it nearly impossible to break traction, let alone cause the type of trail damage normally associated with motorized off-road vehicles. Electric mountain bikes are also much lighter than gas-guzzling dirt bikes, which keeps their impact on par with the mountain bikes already on the trail.

Proponents of e-bikes talk about the potential to expand the sport of mountain biking which is good or bad depending on how you look at it. But consider the types of riders e-bikes can potentially put on the trail: older riders who don’t have the same power they used to, people with physical handicaps, or mountain bikers recovering from injuries. Banning anyone from a trail based on their abilities or inabilities is obviously a non-starter.

Adaptive mountain biking is well established and adding an electric motor is just another adaptation some riders may need to help them on the trail. It’s a slippery slope to start designating which bike technologies are allowed on the trail and which ones aren’t. Banning electric drivetrains would be like banning hydraulic disc brakes on certain trails because they’re too easy to operate compared to rim brakes. Insane!

Electric mountain bikes are heavier than their cross-country equivalents (though similar to many DH sleds) which some have argued makes them potentially dangerous on backcountry trails where a failed battery can leave an unfit rider stranded miles from the nearest exit point. The argument goes that e-bikes shouldn’t be allowed on these trails because they can be dangerous for unprepared riders and potentially increase search and rescue costs for emergency responders.

This is true: e-bike riders need to be responsible, but in the same way all mountain bikers do. A trip into the backcountry without a spare tire or pump is potentially disastrous with or without an electric drivetrain. Yet, you won’t see a note at the trailhead requiring riders to carry emergency items in their packs or barring riders who choose to go out unprepared. Personal responsibility remains in effect for everyone. [In fact, many communities already charge individuals for a rescue if it’s determined the individual should have made more adequate preparations.]

But say the battery didn’t run out and instead, the rider lost one pedal (this has happened to me) or injured a leg. With power assist, an e-bike ends up assisting in a rescue rather than necessitating one. Now I won’t go so far as to say every bike should be equipped with an emergency battery but that’s food for thought.

Finally, some may argue about potential collisions and conflicts between e-bike riders riding along at much faster speeds than their non-assisted brothers and sisters. For this reason, the argument goes, e-bikes should not be allowed on the same trails as regular mountain bikes. In reality, e-bikes include speed governors with even the most liberal government-mandated caps landing at 28mph or less. Even then, riders need to put in a significant effort to reach those speeds. Fast riders and slow riders have been sharing the trails for decades and we’ve even established etiquette like downhill riders yielding to the (slower) rider who is climbing. While some e-bike specific norms may need to be established, the differences between e-bike and non-e-bike riders are not so significant that they can’t share the trails.

Adding an electric drivetrain to a mountain bike is no different than kitting a rig with the latest tech in suspension or even hydraulic disc brakes. We all ride for the same reasons–fun, exercise, and experiencing nature–so everyone deserves access to the same trails without regard to the equipment they need or prefer.

This is just one side of the debate. Be sure to read Greg’s article, arguing against e-assist mountain bikes on mountain bike trails.

# Comments

  • Joe Morales

    If you detach the motor someone still has to pick it up. 🙂 what if riders agreed to turn it off at the top of the hill–would that be ok?

  • delphinide

    As long as they are completely silent, do not damage the trail, worsen the already fragile relationship with hikers, and don’t push me out of the way going up or downhill…we are copacetic. Otherwise, we got problems.

  • denisincb

    I believe Mr. Barber’s premise is wrong. While mountain bikes themselves may utilize “a foundation of continuous technology improvements,” mountain biking itself is built on fitness, personal striving and enjoyment of quiet and natural settings. Self-reliance is a mountain bike mantra. A bicycle is human-powered; an e-motor is still a motor and has nothing to do with hydraulic brakes and fancy suspension. There are lots of less-difficult trails for challenged riders; if you want a motor, buy a motorcycle and ride it on motorized trails.

    • Dylan

      Yes, I agree, If it has a motor, it’s not a true mountain bike, it’s a motor bike

    • Steve55

      It depends on your interpretation of true. This comes down to whether the primary means if propulsion is via human muscular energy ir not. In the case of the “pedelec” thst is the term used to describe pedal assisted enikes in europe, then the same applies for them as well as conventional pedal cycles or your regular mountain bike. In many jurisdictions they both share the same legal rights on public land regardless of access by right or not.
      Essentially there is a lot of misinformation circulating by the traditional MTB community thst is very resistant to change. If you personally give one a go, a prpoer one that is like the Haibije xduro or the specialized levo, then you’ll immediately understand the difference. They give just enough pedal assist to relieve your legs and knees of pain but still make sure you have a good aerobic work out uphill. So you enjoy the entire day of riding and no one can srgue with thst unless they are a self flagelating luddite.

  • bonkedagain

    I think the slippery slope here is letting any kind of power assist on the trails. OK, so right now the bikes aren’t designed and don’t have the power to do any damage. What about a few years from now? With continuous improvement in power storage and electric motors maybe it isn’t that far off when we could see electric bikes have the same characteristics as low-end motorized ones.

    I think we really need to keep a distinct line between human powered and any other mode of transportation (including equestrian, for that matter).

  • Jeff Barber

    I get that it’s a pretty clear line between human powered and non-human powered but what about lift-assisted trails? It’s called gravity riding for a reason :).

    Ok, so resorts and parks are a special case but what about national forest trails where folks utilize a shuttle to get them to the top (Monarch Crest, The Whole Enchilada, etc.)? If we’re going to ban clean, quiet, electric bikes from “self-shuttling” the trails, maybe we should also ban the gas guzzling cars used to shuttle “human-powered” riders to the top of the trail.

    • Greg Heil

      If the e-assist mountain bike traveled up the pavement to the top of the mountain, detached the motor, left it at the top, and then rode down without an engine attached, then perhaps we can compare it to shuttling with a car. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem like a really good comparison 😉

      As for e-assist mtbs on private resort land, that’s one thing: resorts can already do pretty much whatever they want. I think the bigger issue is access on public lands. But then, what about the resorts that lease forest service land, you might ask? Well, now things are starting to get really sticky, aren’t they?

  • bhx

    The idea that electricity is “clean” is almost entirely an illusion. Most of it comes from burning coal.

    If these off road mopeds become popular they will destroy bike access. Look at current riding opportunities for bikes and dirt bikes on public lands…

    R.IP Mountain Biking

    Cause of death: Lack of access, caused by the e-bike

  • Steve55

    I’m not sure of the demographics of the US but here in New Zealand a third of the population is over 55 and it aint going backwards anytime soon. I would take an eduacted guess that most, if not all of the detractors for the use of eMTB ( the so called Pedalecs or pedal assist) on back country trails are under 55. I was also one day in the past, but time stands still for no man or woman.
    Reading through all of the posts on this website and others there is a common thread running through all of the opposing opinions and that is, they are all predicated on a weak argument of fear underlined with a piousness that is more in keeping with a religous order.
    In many cases it stems from a lack of knowledge that breeds the fear.Fear that a monster is being let loose that will escalate out of control. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think enough has been mentioned about the distinction between pedal assist and everything else so I won’t bother repeating it. What we are seeing now is a convergence of technology and recreation. It is progress and it will never sleep. All of us at some point in our lives will arrive at that point in the curve where ability forces recreational enjoyment below the base line.
    I’ve been around orthopaedic surgery for over 25 years and as certain as the sun will rise tomorrow you are all going to benifit from assistance if you want to keep up the enjoyment of this marvellous recreational pastime going into your sixth decade and beyond.
    So don’t shoot yourselves in the foot and begrudgingly challenge the right for others to use eMTB’s on the country trails without at least pausing to consider the implications and study the facts as to exactly what this technology is comprised of. I mean some of the comments defy belief…” if it’s anything but human powered, it dosen’t belong”…..” it’s got a motor so it dosen’t belong”
    History has a habit of repeating itself. I distinctly remeber the 1980’s when snowboards were banned from most of North America’s ski fields. They were the ski slope terrorists of the day.Hell, they were going to strip the slopes of all viable snow. Today acceptance is 100% and hey…. you can even win an Olympic gold!

  • denisincb

    I count 64 years behind me; I’m an avid skier and cyclist. Old or young, motorized isn’t a bicycle. And BTW snowboards do strip viable snow and acceptance is not 100%. They are a plague…no offense to my many friends who snowboard.

  • Steve55

    @ dennisincb…..
    Hi Dennis, It is marvellous that you are able to maintain an active outdoor life into your seventh decade. I accept the points ( to a degree) in your counter argument but am also relieved that you don’t take a definitive position on the controversy.
    If you strip out the emotional elements from the debate and focus on the practical and physical aspects, then its very difficult, if not impossible, to reason for exclusion of pedal assistance limited to the power of fit rider, which, in the case of my country, is 250 to 300 watts. That’s the law down here and anything else is a registered motor vehicle. If you’re you’re going to prohibit them , you may as well ban tandems.
    Like yourself I live an active life outdoors, but I have limitations. My knees. An the irony is, it’s probably the continued activity in my younger years, including mountain biking, that has accelerated the degeneration. But I’m not not going to lie down and soak up the emotional drivel that is being dished out in the blogosphere that is attempting to exclude me and a growing number of contemporaries from my outdoor recreation.
    My bike, and you can read about it here,
    has absolutely no impact, environmental or otherwise on mountain bike trails. I have to pedal hard uphill but its manageable and I couldn’t do it otherwise, the pain in my knees wouldn’t allow it. I get a decent cardiovascular workout and downhill the assist is off.
    So far, out of the dozen’s of riders I’ve encountered on the trails, only a couple have been astute enough to work out I have assistance. If they had an emotional opinion about it, then they kept it to themselves which is where most of the commentary should remain.
    I’m not out there to dent anyone’s ego. I’m outdoors because I enjoy the fresh air and our
    enviable trail network lacing together a wonderland of pristine bush and forest. This wonderland is there for everyone’s enjoyment and the line needs to be drawn at the environmental impact. A true eBike (250 Watts, pedal assist only) is of no consequence alongside a conventional mountain bike. They emit no odour, gas, vapour or smoke, they are noiseless and there is no speed differential. If one wishes to argue the final point, then a lightweight diamond framed dual suspension bike is faster downhill where speed is a real issue. Uphill I go at running pace and everyone else is at walking pace. It balances out.

  • denisincb

    Hi Steve55, where I live in Crested Butte, Colorado, public land use discussions will continue throughout my lifespan. In many ways, my disparagement derives from almost pervasive motorized use on these lands. We have some designated non-motorized trails, and general use everywhere else, trails that sustain use by most everything. I understand that eBikes are in a different category than internal combustion engines.

    Call me a throwback purist; the crest of the hill feels better to me when I’ve pedaled up it. I figure when I can no longer do that, I’ll choose gentler terrain. Sorry your knees bother you on a bike; my knees suffer from skiing while a bicycle is tonic.

  • ffguedes

    Hello there,
    Great podcast… first-time listener. I love pedal assistant mountain bikes and I think that they look amazing and they are a brilliant invention of our species. The podcast just sounds a little buyest to me. My suggestion is that the next episode dedicated to talking about ebikes, that you invite a guest that is in pro ebikes to see what that person would have to say also.

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